IT COMES DOWN TO THE little things. The fine details. Picking flowers from the garden, buying the last of the cheeses, saying a prayer to the weather gods that the rain holds off. And, of course, the hope that the day unfolds without a hitch.
My mother’s birthday party is tonight, the first grand event at our house in years, weeks and weeks in the making. Months, really. It’s taken me ages to convince my mother, the famed writer Marilyn Millay, that she’s worthy of a celebration, that her friends and family want nothing more than to gather in her honor. And what better occasion than for her sixtieth birthday? When she finally conceded, we wrote up a guest list of more than a hundred people and sent the invitations properly, by mail. A garden party in July.
And now, here we are. The party begins at eight. In thirteen hours. The last-minute preparations await.
It rained just before dawn, but the clouds have since split open to a stark blue sky. The front lawn out the kitchen window glows moist. All signs now point to a glorious July day. I’m standing at the sink drinking a glass of warm lemon water. I berate myself daily for not sitting down for an actual breakfast. How many online articles have I read that say one must sit to enjoy their food and drink? I was terrible at it in the best of times, but since the accident, since my fall, my appetite has all but disappeared. Even drinking this lemon water requires my focus.
Next to the sink, my notebook is opened to my list. I make a list every day, but today’s is longer than usual. As I said: last-minute preparations.
I lift my pen and strike a line through: Water the lawn.
Tasks written down, crossed off.
My cheeks are warm. I didn’t sleep well last night, and the few hours I did get were beset by sweaty nightmares. At one point my husband, Paul, shook me awake.
‘You’re talking in your sleep again,’ he said.
‘About what?’ I asked.
‘You keep saying no.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘Your arms were flailing. Like you were breaking a fall.’
He looked worried.
‘Sorry,’ I said, kissing his forehead. ‘I’m fine. Go back to sleep.’
More fitfulness followed. At six a.m. I gave up and came downstairs. An ungodly hour on a Saturday, and now that I’m alone in the kitchen, the quiet of the house unnerves me. I’ll do my tour. That’s what Paul affectionately calls it—my tour—the rounds I make every morning to check on my family who always sleep in later than I do. It’s a habit I developed after my eldest, Isobel, was born, a balm against the many anxieties that came with new motherhood. I’m just forty now, and Isobel is seventeen. I should be long past the need to check on her as she sleeps but, well. I’m not.
I climb the stairs. They creak less than they once did; they’re less slippery too. Paul insisted we add a carpeted runner after I fell down the stairs and broke my hip six months ago. Still, I tiptoe to the second floor. Old habits die hard.
The master bedroom is at the top of the stairs. I left its door ajar when I got up. I peer in to see Paul sound asleep, splayed on his back, not a care in the world. He must be alert to me on some level, because though his eyes never open, he lifts his head off the pillow as if straining to hear a distant sound. For a lawyer, Paul maintains a remarkably low level of stress. I’m tempted to crawl back in bed with him, to insert myself into the warm nook formed by his bent arm. To seduce him, even. Since the affair ended—my affair—things have been good between Paul and me. There’s a renewed vigor. But I can’t. Not now. There’s no time.
I hover in the quiet of the hallway for a moment. For the past six months, every time I stand here, I relive it. The moment of midair suspension at the top of the stairs. That pause in time, that oh! I felt, more surprised than helpless or afraid.
Next to the master is Isobel’s room. I know the perfect sequence to follow so that her door doesn’t squeal when I press it open. I lean a hand into the doorframe before gripping and turning the knob. Her room is entirely devoid of light thanks to the expensive blackout curtains I bought Isobel this spring when sleep was eluding her. I can only make out her shadowy outline on the bed, but I do hear her breaths. It sounds morbid, but fundamentally, that’s what I’m checking for on these morning tours—signs of life. Isobel’s gone through hell these past few months, and it’s made me fear for her. My darling girl, one year left in high school and already too well versed in how cruel life can be. I blow her a silent kiss then pull the door closed.
Damien’s room is next. My son. I could blast a trumpet in his face and he wouldn’t wake, so I take less care in opening his door. His room is stuffy and smells of a fifteen-year-old boy; cheap pharmacy cologne and sweat. You could set a metronome to the steadiness of his breathing. He is shirtless, his blood-sugar detector glowing white on his bicep. He’s been through a lot too, my boy. A diagnosis of diabetes at ten, all the tests and processes and adjustments that came with it, not to mention two stressed and overprotective parents hovering constantly. But he’s endured. He’s resilient. He was a gorgeous, rosy-cheeked toddler, and now he’s a gorgeous, rosy-cheeked teen. Paul often jokes that his baby face helps extract him from the trouble he stirs up. That’s what worries me. Lately, Damien’s been secretive, quiet. His bedroom door is always closed. There’s been girl trouble. Normal teen boy things, Paul always reassures me, but my tendency is to imagine the worst-case scenario. I worry about my two kids equally. Most parents do. But if I had to delineate it crudely across gender lines, the truth is that I worry about the things that might happen to Isobel, and with Damien, I worry about the things he might do. I fixate on how the reckless abandon that made him such a happy boy will translate as his hormones take hold. Who was it who said: You can do your best to teach your children right from wrong, but you can’t fundamentally override who they are?
I yank Damien’s duvet straight and kiss him. He barely stirs. Time to go.
The final room down this hall overlooks the garden. This is where my niece, Margot, has slept for the past six months. I was in the hospital for a long time with a series of complications after the accident and transferred to rehab from there. Paul needed help at home. After I was discharged, I required support to get back on my feet. So, Margot moved in to help.
Margot is twenty-four, poised and tall, kind, and clever. I press my ear to the door and hear nothing, but I won’t open it. That would be an invasion of her privacy. Margot and I have an understanding. We respect each other’s time and space. I’d even say we are the keeper of each other’s secrets.
It’s past seven now. I need to shower and get moving. Back in the kitchen, I pick up my notebook with today’s list in it. I feel a little steadier now, calmed by my tour and by the sight of my beloveds cozy in their rooms. When the kids were little, they’d routinely climb into our bed too early in the morning. Paul would pretend our mattress was a boat on choppy seas, rolling them each over and back as if they were swaying on the waves. After the game was over, we’d lie the four of us in a row, and I’d reach across the span of the bed to pull all of them into my embrace at once. Paul, Isobel, Damien, and me. My purest bliss was all of us huddled like that. The four Walshes, safe, together forever.
Back to my list. Ever since the accident, my mind has this tendency to wander, to follow memory-soaked tangents until I’m all but lost. I can’t afford that today. Focus, Nadine. Collect the list, check the garden, shower, head out.
This morning is set aside for small errands. Our local commercial strip is laid out so that all can be accomplished on a simple there-and-back route along the quaint main street. Even the shop owners know me and my to-do lists, my claim to fame. I started writing them when I was a kid, a tic I inherited from my mother, and I can openly admit to how thoroughly they’ve governed my life. There’s a box full of colorful notebooks in our crawl space that’s filled with nothing but lists, my days commemorated by tasks both menial and meaningful. My lists have kept me sane through the turbulence of life as the only child to a poor single mother turned rich-and-famous writer, through my early college years and the accompanying shenanigans and heartbreak, my marriage to Paul, through my on-and-off master’s degree, the births of Isobel and Damien. They’ve grounded me through loss, through illness, friendships, betrayal. Through it all, really.
Of course, there are some things I can only include in code. Private things, womanly things. And the affair. I’ve seen Paul or Isobel or Damien peek inside the pages now and then. They’re curious.
‘Why do you carry that notebook with you everywhere?’ Isobel often asks. ‘You’re not a writer!’
And so, in my notebook, I write supplies* when I need to buy feminine products, or doctor appt* when I’d arranged to meet Lionel at the hotel. Vile, vile Lionel. To think he’ll be at the party tonight.
Midway down the list is a single letter flanked by two asterisks. *C*. Colleen.
Today is not just my mother’s birthday, it marks another anniversary too. Thirty years ago, my grandparents threw a birthday party for my mother on their farm. I was ten, my mother turning thirty, and Colleen, my mother’s much younger sister, only fifteen. We keep a picture of Colleen on the hutch in our dining room, a portrait of her taken at sunset with the farm field behind her, frozen forever in youth. There’s a story to it all, a reason my mother has long been steadfast in refusing any kind of birthday celebration. This day has always felt tainted, sad. Why? Because decades ago, the morning after my mother’s thirtieth birthday, young Colleen was found dead in the barn.
On a fresh page of my notebook, I’ve written PARTY in block letters at the top. It’s time to start anew, to reset the tenor of this day with an overdue celebration of my mother. And I’m ready, aren’t I? I’ve hosted parties before, if not quite on this scale. Everything is in order. The weather is perfect. So why I am wobbly? I’ve been disoriented for weeks. Anxious, fixated. For years I’ve been exceptionally well practiced at feigning normalcy. Since the accident, not so much.
I set down my glass and run the tap to rinse it. A cardinal has landed on the thin lower branches of the maple tree on our lawn. Only when it flies away do I realize I’ve been staring at it in a trance.
Behind the tree a man appears on the sidewalk in front of our home. Elderly, a newspaper tucked under his arm. Do I know him? I don’t think so. But this is always the issue. We live in a neighborhood called Winngrove, an affluent-but-liberal village within a city, a contained enclave inhabited by types my mother calls champagne socialists—university professors, doctors, artists with trust funds. The streets are lined with century-old oaks and maples, brick houses, parks, and grocers, but the core of the city is only a short subway ride away. Upurban, Paul calls it with pride.
Paul and I moved to this house when I was twenty-three, he twenty-eight, my belly swollen with late pregnancy. In those early years, Winngrove was working class. We bought our semidetached house from the estate of an elderly woman who lived next door to her sister for close to fifty years. I loved that story, sisters with a lifetime of proximity, so much so that when we found an old photograph of them in the floorboards during a renovation—the two of them on the street facing their newly purchased semis, backs to the camera—I had it enlarged and framed to hang in the kitchen.
In those early years, Winngrove felt almost like a hiding spot, most of our friends still living with roommates in small apartments downtown. Many of our neighbors worked at the nearby chocolate factory. But we—Paul, a young lawyer, and me, recently graduated, pregnant, my rich mother willing to buy us this wide semidetached in cash—we were the harbingers of the gentrification to come. The chocolate factory closed and its building was converted into lofts. More young families began snatching up houses. A business improvement group was formed. The neighborhood took the name of its local park: Winngrove. It’s a moniker meant to be both whimsical and exclusive, a village within a city, an enclave that feels set apart from urbanity while still being in it. When the second sister died in a nursing home, we bought the house next door as an income property. A few of our old friends bought on our very street. So much for a hiding spot. When you know your neighbors well, it often feels like you’re under watchful eyes the moment you step out the front door.
My chest tightens when the old man out the window locks his gaze on me and waves. I don’t wave back. Instead, I turn the tap again and lean forward to splash cold water to my cheeks. When I right myself, he’s gone.
“Okay,” I say to the empty kitchen, willing myself to move. “The party.”
The party. The email RSVPs arrived in quick succession within days of mailing the invites. My mother has been gracious about the fact that most of the attendees are my friends. Paul’s friends. In just over twelve hours, they’ll land on our doorstep, thrilled to be invited to a night honoring a famous writer, carefully selected gifts tucked under their arms, each guest dressed to the nines.
I close my notebook. The cardinal has looped back to the tree. It’s still early, but I’ll get moving anyway. Get started. I can’t slow down. I’ll need momentum. To everyone else, to Paul and the kids and my mother, tonight will be about the food and the mingling and dancing, an open bar with its flowing drinks, old friends catching up on gossip, the newly divorced mixing with the married and the always-single; our children, teenagers now, gathered in the garden’s nooks with their friends, their own social hierarchies, their own troubles and petty grievances, just forming.
Tonight, we will celebrate the venerable Marilyn Millay’s sixtieth birthday in truly magnificent style. What fun will the night bring? It’s a party, after all. It should be fun.
So why, then, does the day already feel so heavy?